Before lasers became popular for tattoo removal starting in the late 1980s, removal involved the use of one or more of these often-painful, often scar-inducing surgeries:
- Dermabrasion, where skin is “sanded” to remove the surface and middle layers;
- Cryosurgery, where the area is frozen prior to its removal;
- Excision, where the dermatologic surgeon removes the tattoo with a scalpel and closes the wound with stitches (In some cases involving large tattoos, a skin graft from another part of the body may be necessary.).
Although the procedures above are still used in certain cases today, lasers (Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation) have become the standard treatment for tattoo removal because they offer a bloodless, low risk, effective alternative with minimal side effects. Each procedure is done on an outpatient basis in a single or series of visits. Patients may or may not require topical or local anesthesia.
As early as the 1960s, lasers had been developed for industrial uses. When researchers developed lasers that emitted wavelengths of light in short flashes called pulses, medical use became viable. These lasers can effectively remove tattoos with a low risk of scarring, according to the American Academy of Dermatology . The type of laser used to remove a tattoo depends on the tattoo’s pigment colors. (Yellow and green are the hardest colors to remove; blue and black are the easiest.)The three lasers developed specifically for use in tattoo removal use a technique known as Q-switching, which refers to the laser’s short, high-energy pulses:
- the Q-switched Ruby,
- the Q-switched Alexandrite,
- the Q-switched Nd: YAG, the newest system in this class of lasers and particularly advanced in the removal of red, blue and black inks